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The World’s Most Extreme Waves – The Americas

Also take a look at our other article: The World’s Most Extreme Waves – The Rest Of The World!

“Outracing the exploding lip of a breaking wave is like ski-ing in front of an avalanche” says Sean Collins of SurfLine Surf Forecaster.

Since the ancient Hawaiians first slid shoreward on their hand-carved Olo boards, riding the biggest wave of the day has continued to be one of surfing’s most revered accomplishments. But while the professional surfing circuit has blossomed over the last two decades, offering millions of dollars in prize money to agile small-wave performers, there has been no regularly-offered reward given to some of the true heroes of our sport -the BIG WAVE CHARGERS.

Continental United States


Mavericks is a famous big-wave surfing spot off Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco. It is a world-famous surfing location in Northern California. Located approximately one-half mile (0.8 km) from shore in Pillar Point Harbor it is just north of Half Moon Bay at the village of Princeton-By-The-Sea. It occurs after a strong winter storm in the northern Pacific Ocean. Waves can routinely crest at over 25 feet (8m) and top out at over 50 feet (15m). The break is caused by an unusually-shaped underwater rock formation.

Mavericks is a destination for some of the world’s premier big wave surfers. Very few riders become big wave surfers; and of those, only a select few are willing to risk the hazardous conditions at Mavericks. An invitation-only contest is held there every winter, depending on wave conditions.

Do you know how Maverkicks got its name? In early March of 1961, three surfers, Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Knottmeyer, decided to try the distant waves off Pillar Point. With them was a white-haired German Shepherd named Maverick, owned by a roommate of Matienzo. Maverick was used to swimming out with his owner, or with Matienzo, while they were out surfing. The trio left Maverick on shore, but he swam out and caught up with them.

Finding the conditions too unsafe for the dog, Matienzo paddled back in and tied Maverick to the car bumper, before rejoining the others. The riders had limited success that day, surfing the tail end of the break and generally deeming the conditions too dangerous, but they decided to name the point after Maverick, who seemed to have gotten the most out of the experience. It became known as “Maverick’s Point”, and later simply “Maverick’s”.

Ghost Tree, Monterey Bay, California

At first light, Ghost Tree saw a 17-foot swell approaching from due west at 20-second intervals. Roughly two hours later, Don Curry, the man who named the wave, and his partner Ed Guzman rolled up on the channel just in time to watch a pair of 30-foot wave faces boom over the spot’s infamous boneyard and into Stillwater Cove. The swells continued growing until they were well over 45ft. Surfers were arriving from all over hoping to ride the wave.

It was first surfed in 2005 and sadly claimed a life in 2007. It is supposed to be scarier than Maverick’s and heavier than Waimea and is one of the most dangerous waves in the world.  The height of the wave can reach 70ft with an incredibly long tube.

Lunada Bay, California

Lunada is a wave for experienced surfers and martial arts experts! Does that sound a bit wierd? Well, apparently the natives aren’t very friendly and the police force less than interested – you have been warned! However, back to the wave… this is a world class wave and perhaps one of the best right handers in California. It is not a particularly dangerous wave but it is a great performance wave at 6ft up to 20ft swells with the length on a normal day being 50 – 150m, but on a good day 150 – 300m. It is on a rocky reef with boulders underneath.

The main drawback to this wave is that it can be very crowded. And then of course we get back to the … locals. There have been reports of slashed tyres, rocks thrown and fist fights. Sounds like a full day out!

The Wedge, Newport Beach, California

And I’ll draw this article to a close with a monster. This is a wave for advanced surfers only and is considered deadly at all tides. “The Wedge is not a wave — it’s a 20-foot-plus meat grinder dreamed up by the devil himself. It heaves, bends and pulverizes in ways that good little waves aren’t supposed to act.” says

When supplied with a south swell of the proper size and direction, it can produce huge waves as spectacular and intimidating as any in Hawaii, Tahiti or Australia. It is a combination of two waves that merge together, creating a powerful wave which refracts the swell energy off the jetty and creates a sideways wave that slings across the beach and collides with the next wave in the set. The result is what locals fittingly call a “humping effect,” where the set waves jack, expand and release in unimaginable ways. This wave is the best known bodysurfing wave in the world, but stand-up surfers are less welcome, in fact, throughout the summer, no boards of any kind are allowed in the water except in the early morning and late evening.

Nelscott Reef, Oregon

Nelscott Reef creates a reef break (where waves spill over to create whitewater) that is known as the only place on the Oregon Coast with the right conditions for tow-in surfing and it is the only spot to consistently produce double overhead waves, thus the event brings in big name surfers. Before 2003 no one had been able to paddle out in this region due to the shallow water and undertow, but it has now become recognised as one of the worlds premier tow in waves and will easily hold 30ft+ waves.

Cortes Bank, San Diego

Cortez Bank is a 17-mile underwater mountain range which rises to within 6 feet (2 m) of the surface and is marked by a nearby warning buoy. It was named for the clipper ship Stillwell S. Bishop that struck the rock in 1855 (and with a patched hull made it to San Francisco).  This place has been known to ocean-going ships and fishermen for years. The waves there signal danger on the underwater rocks and are so big they show up on radar.

This wave is truly in the middle of the ocean. You have to take a 100 mile boat ride out to it. To get the biggest waves at Cortes Bank, you need light winds, low tides, and big storm swells from the northwest all at the same time. When it happened on January 19, 2001, California big wave riders scrambled to test their skill against the biggest, baddest wave ever ridden. These waves move so fast that surfers can’t catch them by paddling, so you need jet skiers to tow with a rope until they are moving fast enough to catch the wave.

This spot is for worldclass surfers only. It is dangerous.


The North Shore of Oahu is world famous. It is the surfing capital of the world. During the winter season, giant swells generated in the north Pacific produce the most consistently spectacular waves in the world. There are a number of popular surf breaks lining the coast. The most famous are the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay. If there is such a thing as a perfect wave, you’ll likely find it on Oahu’s North Shore.

The big, glassy winter waves of this legendary surf mecca attract the best surfers in the world. Stretching for more than 7 miles, the beaches of the North Shore host the world’s premier surfing competitions including the Super Bowl of wave-riding, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.

Banzai Pipeline, Hawaii

From November to February surfers congregate on the North Shore hoping to catch that perfect wave. Winter wave heights can get as high 20 feet, with faces up to 50 feet! This extreme surf is for experts only, and even then conditions are considered highly dangerous. World-renowned surf contests are held here from early November to late December. The Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing, which includes the Reef Hawaiian Pro at Ali’i Beach Park in Hale’iwa; the O’Neill World Cup at Sunset Beach; and the Billabong Pipeline Masters at Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline), brings together the world’s best professional surfers.

The merciless waves of Pipeline break just 50 to 100 yards off the beach over a shallow reef making this one of the most dangerous surf spots in the world.

Waimea, Hawaii

Waimea Bay is the birthplace of big wave surfing. The Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, held at Waimea Bay, takes place each winter.

In winter, Waimea and other North Shore locations such as Pipeline and Sunset Beach host a number of surfing contests because of the large waves found here. These waves are created by winter storms in the North Pacific, and their arrival on O‘ahu’s North Shore are forecast accurately several days in advance. In summer, Waimea is known for it clear and calm water.

The surf break at Waimea Bay was significant in the development of Big wave surfing. Larger surf at the bay went unridden for years until November 7, 1957 when a handful of surfers finally paddled out and rode the giant waves that break off the northern point of the bay. While the surf only breaks big several times a year, Waimea was the most prestigious big wave surf break in the world for decades. With the advent of tow-in surfing, more and more big wave breaks have been discovered that are far superior in quality than Waimea. However, the bay still holds a significant place even in today’s world of big wave surfing.

Peahi or “Jaws”, Maui, Hawaii

Peahi, otherwise known as ‘Jaws’, breaks over a perfectly shaped triangle reef. The winter swells that pound the Hawaiian shores come all the way from the Alaskan Aleutian island chain in the far north of the Bering sea. Unimpeded by landfall they march across thousands of miles of uninterrupted ocean hitting the Maui reef about a half mile offshore at Peahi at almost 30kms an hour. The force of these swells produce some truly monster waves in the 40-70 foot range.

The ‘Jaws’ surf break has reached its worldwide fame largely due to the frequent filming and photography of tow-in surfing legends performing there on enormous ocean waves breaking at the deep reef off the shore; famed big wave surfers such as tow-in surfing pioneers (also known as “The Strap Crew”-for the rubber straps on their short surfboards to anchor their feet against the forces): Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Darrick Doerner, Buzzy Kerbox, Brett Little, Rush Randle, Mark Angulo, Mike Waltze, Pete Cabrinha, and Brian Keaulana.

Jaws is famous for its quality. The reef and rocks at Jaws are shaped in a way that magnifies incoming swell energy and produces clean and well-defined right and left waves with gigantic barreling sections.


The Mexican Pipeline, Puerto Escondido

Mexico is home to two of the most powerful waves on earth. Deep down in southern mainland Mexico at Puerto Escondido is a beach break that surfers have coined “The Mexican Pipeline” – a comparison to the surf world’s most famous wave, Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. The surf is seasonal, varying from small to medium in size during the dry season (November to April), and from small to big during the rainy season (beginning in early May).

The change of seasons is dramatic, occurring within the space of a week and bringing with it an equally sudden increase in wave size.  An added advantage during this time of year is that the evening session is often accompanied by strong offshore winds which can result in world-class conditions.

“Killers” at Todos Santos

1,700 miles north is a reef break called “Killers”, a huge wave which breaks 9 miles off the coast of Ensenada at Isla Todos Santos where waves can reach heights of 70 feet and over. It was the West Coast’s first legitimate big wave, discovered by the Windansea guys back in the ’60s, and unlike other waves with scary names – “widowmaker”, “dead man’s” or “shark pits”, “Killers” lives up to its reputation. It remains a rite of passage for any aspiring big wave charger on this side of Oahu. 

As with most big waves, a number of factors have to intersect to make it all happen: in this case, the reef points directly into the maw of northwest swells, and is flanked by a serious underwater canyon that focuses long period swell energy down the point — often doubling the size of whatever swell’s out there. It’s a powerful and shifty deepwater wave, complete with weird boils and bumps in the face. It is best in the winter, breaks to the right and the best swells come from the Northwest. The bottom is huge rocks and the hazards are rips, rocks, urchins and skis. The other drawback to this wave is that it blows out early most days.


Punta de Lobos, South Santiago

Punta de Lobos is a fairly consistent left pointbreak wave, which breaks over sand and rock. It is a huge long powerful wall and will give a ride of 1/4 mile (give or take 500m) without a problem. Bicep burn, out of 0-10 = 8! The water is cold and there are heavy rips.

The closest big city is Pichilemu. Punta Lobos is one of  South America’s biggest waves.

El Gringo, Arica

“You first have to understand the set-up of El Gringo. It is a full slab set-up, a right and left ledger slamming down on a jagged rock reef. Entry and exit is via a narrow, dog-leg keyhole, with surging tides and sets that, on occasion, actually unload into the slot. There’s spiny sea-urchins on the jagged rocks. Razor sharp mussels. And a territorial pack of seals. So when you’re caught on the inside, you’re left crab-walking the jagged guts and praying the sets stop pouring in. Which, in Chile, they don’t. And if you haven’t got a board to assist your outward scramble, you’re pretty much bummed. according to Surfing Magazine.

This is a very dangerous wave as you only have 2ft of water beneath you. It is a left and right reef break which breaks over rock. There is a very big tube/pipeline to the left – at least a 30ft ride, and a longer ride to the right – about 120ft. During the 2007’s WCT event on Gringos, pro surfers suffered broken boards, battered heads and embedded urchin spines – and these guys know what they are doing, so beware – definitely a wave for expert surfers only.

Santos del Mar

A spot that could have disappeared:

In 2007, local surfers and residents were concerned about the environmental degradation that would be caused by a proposed US$1.3 billion dollar coal-fired power plant on the coastline of Chile’s 7th Region. Arsenic and lead poisoning of adjacent marine waters and agricultural lands are common from coal-burning power plants, and the region surrounding Santos del Mar is remote and rural with plentiful fishing grounds and small-scale agriculture. Furthermore, the proposed cooling towers for the electrical generator would have used marine waters via an industrial intake mechanism that is responsible for killing millions of fish and marine mammals per year in similar facilities worldwide”.

Luckily, due to a lack of investors, the project was postponed until the construction permit expired in 2015, officially canceling the project.